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Save the rhino, but kill the people
SAVE THE RHINO, BUT KILL THE PEOPLE
Rangoon wants a reserve. So do conservationists. Shame about the villagers.
Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark in Burma ans David Harrison report.
Guardian Weekly, March 30, 1997
WE FOUND them deep in the Burmese jungle, east of the Tenasserim river. About
2,000 of them hungry, exhausted and fearing for their lives. They have no
money, no change of clothes, and they eat what food they find. They sleep under
palm leaves propped teepee-style angainst the trees. A sickly child is crying.
An old woman sobs endlessly. Saw Lyi, aged 56, holds out his hands: "We do not
know what will happen to us".
Saw Lyi knows he will not be going home. He and thousands of the Karen ethnic
group, a gentle, cultured and religious people, have been driven out of their
homes by the Burmese army. He also knows that in a strange way he is lucky,
because he made it to the jungle, starving and homeless but alive.
Hundreds of people, including Saw's son, a father of six, have been murdered in
the two months since the army launched its offensive to crush the Karen,
according to human rights groups, which base their evidence on independant
research, including hundreds of eyewitness accounts. Tens of thousands have
been forced to work, unpaid and unfed, building roads and railways, and 30,000
have fled into the jungle or accross the border to Thailand.
Why? Because the Burmese army is razing villages, killing raping, enslaving, to
make way for the biggest nature reserve of its kind in the world. Dwarfing the
Masai Mara and the Serengeti in East Africa, it is home to rare flora and
fauna, tigers, elephants and the Sumatran rhinoceros. It will attract million
of tourists. Most importantly, it will be a sign to the world that Burma,
shunned because of its appaling human rights record, cares about endangered
wildlife and the environment.
All the Rangoon government needed was a few major international conservation
organisations to turn a blind eye to atrocities committed against an irksome
ethnic minority. It got them from the top drawer of wildlife protection: the
New-York-based Wildlife Conservation Society and the Smithsonian Institution in
It also claims to have "an open channel of communication" with the Worldwide
Fund for Nature International, whose patron is Prince Philip.
The junta running Burma was thrilled - as we discovered when, after our
dispiriting trek into the jungle, we made for Rangoon to see if a minister
would talk about the project and the role of those conservation giants. The two-
storey forestry ministry squats at the end of a long tree-lined road in the
Burmese capital. It is a part of a complex of ministries run by the State Law
and Order Restoration Council (Slorc) and a stone's throw from the home of the
most famous dissident, Aung San Suu Kyi, who is under virtual house arrest.
Security is tight, more so since a bomb exploded in Rangoon three months ago.
The ministry was surrounded by barbed wire and bougainvillea. A dozen soldiers,
bayonets glinting in the sun, stooped us at the first roadblock. We had dressed
in khaki and boots to add plausibility to our guiseas environmental researchers
from a British university, but we had no appointment, no letter of introduction.
The soldiers were suspicious but sent us on the next roadblock to put our case
to the military intelligence officiers, sinister figures in pale blue uniforms
and reflector sunglasses. But they seemed to buy our story ans we were ushered
into a spartant office, where two senior ministry figures received us with a
mixture of scepticism ans delight that respectable British scientistswere
interested in their "big idea".
One introduced himself as Ye Myint, adviser to the forestry minister. Eager to
impress, he boasted of Slorc's plans to etablish a "unique" million-hectare
"biosphere", the Myinmoletkak Nature Reserve, in the Karen area, one of the
semi-independant regions set up just before Britain pulled out of Burma in
1948. "We hope the reserve will win world heritage status," he enthused.
The reserve would also encompass a section of a gas pipeline being constructed
by Total and Unocal, the French ans American oil companies, which signed deals
with the Burmese to pump gas from the Andaman Sea in the west to Thailand in
the east. Human rights groups say forced labour is being used on the project.
Ye Myint told us of another "exciting" project, the Lanbi Island Marine
National Park, off the southern Burmese coast. Coral islands would be
transformed into an "ecotourism venture" in the fist stage of a grand plan to
open the entire 200-mile Mergui archipelago to mass tourism and scientific
HIS COLLEAGUE Aung Din, a senior policy adviser, described how international
environmentalists were lending the Slorc their expertse and reputations. The
Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the Smithsonian Institution were
helping to run both projects, he said.
He showed us a programme from a WWF conference in Rangoon last month. Delegates
at the Asian Elephants Specialist Group's seven day conference included WWF
representatives and the curator of Chester Zoo. WWF-UK, the organisation's
British section, contibuted L2,000 towards the cost.
As we left, Dr Rabinowitz, a senior scientist from WCS, arrived to meet the
same officials. We were told Dr Rabinowitz had established a management
committee for the Lanbi Islands project and, along with other scientists from
the Smithsonian, was also running training programmes and conducting wildlife
surveys. Dr Rabinowitz was there to update officials and finilise plans for an
expedition to upper Burma last week, part of a worldwide research and
conservation programme that has taken the New Yok-based WCS to 52 countries.
The WCS and the Smithsonian are the first non-governmental groups to have
worked with the Slorc since the Rangoon massacres of 1988, when 3,000
demonstrators were killed by the police and troops during riots that led to the
ousting of President Sein Lwin.
Later that day, we talked to other officials. Aung Than, director of forestry
for the Tenassarim Division, spoke of the ministry's "open channel of
communication with the WWF". He said the WWF had discussed the new nature
reserves with the Slorc, encouraged Burma to become a member of the Convention
on International Trade of Endangered Species, and made an "exploratory mission"
When we asked if we could visit the new sites to conduct an audit of the rare
and endangered species, we were told: "I'm afraid that will not be possible at
the moment. You must be aware we have problems in this area. There is a large
security operation going on. Mopping up must finish before anything else can
Mopping up. That chilling phrase appears frequently in Burma's state-controlled
press. It refers to the forced removal of "troublesome elements". That includes
members of the Karen ethnic minority, who object to their homes being torched
and their families killed or forced to flee tothe jungle.
This concept for human life was not evident last September at the launch
ceremony for the Myinmoletkat Nature Reserve, held in Rangoon. Dr Kyaw Tint,
director-genral of Forestry, assured guests that the welfare of local
inhabitants sould be paramount. Not only would rare species be protected but
the lives of the rural poor would be improved.
Three months later, soldiers of the Tatmadaw, the Slorc's military wing,
arrived at Saw Lyi's paddy fields at his village north of Mergui. The 56-year-
old grandfather was marched to a makeshift football field with the other
villagers and told to leave within 24 hours or be shot.
He told his story, typical of the fate of thousands, at his jungle hideout,
surrounded by his dead son's children and widow and other despairing relatives.
"I was tied to a bamboo post with Saw Kri, my son, and hit twice in the face
with a rifle butt. The soldiers punched and kicked him about 30 minutesuntil he
passed out. Then they killed him with a bayonet," he said.
We had smuggled into the Tenasserim Division area by members of the Karen
National Liberation Army who are resisting the Slorc slaughter. An isolated
Asian frontier-land, cut through with verdant river valleys and wrapped in
dense jungle, the Tenasserim already has wildlife sanctuaries established by
The brutal offensive began in February, after troops of the newly formed
Coastal Military Command, led by Brigadier-General Thura Thihathura Sit Maung,
has massed at both ends of the Division. Human rights monitors, who have
interviewed refugees fleeing from the area and visited the region themselves,
say more than 2,000 have been killed, 30,000 have been evicted from their homes
and as many forced to work for the Slorc in the past 18 months.
In a village south of the Total pipeline, Mi Aye, aged 34, a mother of seven,
told how women were raped by soldiers guarding forced labor projects: "They
raped many women, but Mi Thein, one of the girls, was raped so many times she
died. She was just 15 years old."
As well as gathering scores of first-hand accounts, we were shown orders issued
by the Tatmadaw to village leaders, commandering men and women for work. One
stated: "If you do not come this time you will be attacked with artillery."
ONE NGO report said: "Several thousand villagers are being used every day as
forced labour. Children as young as 12, people over 60, and women still breast-
feeding are forced to haul dirt, built embankments and break rocks."
Stories are emerging of killings and disappearances on Lanbi and other islands
in the Mergui archipelago. An elder from a village near Mergui said: "We
received reports of 140 deaths between October and December. On Lanbi Island,
we were told that many had died." Western diplomats in Rangoon and human rights
organisations are investigating the reports.
While inquiries into the killings and disappearances continue, the Burmese
government is selling the archipelago as "re-emerging lost island paradise" -
and the conservation groups are winning the battle with their conscience.
Josh Ginsberg, science director at the Wildlife Conservation Society in New
York, said: "We are there to do important conservation work. We may disagree
with a regime but it is not our place to challenge it."
Robin Pellew, director of WWF-UK, said WWF had done an elephants survey last
year and planned to do a "quick and dirty" tiger survey in the future. It had
discussed the Lanbi nature reserve with Burmese officials, but had decided not
to get involved. The WWF currently had no projects in Burma and no formal
relationship with the Burmese authorities.
"Sometimes we have to deal with repulsive regimes," he said. "We have to weigh
up whether the conservation benfit is worth the risk of being seen, directly or
indirectl, to be supporting those regimes."
- The Observer